Croatian Volunteers in the Wehrmacht in WWII
On April 6th, 1941, Germany launched a massive assault on Yugoslavia. Within 12 days of the assault, Yugoslavia was crushed. Four days after the German assault, on April 10th, 1941, Slavko Kvaternik came forward from the region of Croatia and proclaimed “a free and independent State of Croatia” under the direction of Ante Pavelic. At the time of the German assault and later during Kvaternik’s declaration, Pavelic was in Italy. He arrived in Croatia on April 14th and took up control of the newly formed independent State of Croatia. On April 17th, Croatia declared war on the British, thus making Croatia a formal Axis partner.
Over the course of the Second World War, many Croatians choose not to serve in the various branches of the Armed Forces of the Independent State of Croatia but instead volunteered for service in one of the military forces of Croatia’s Axis allies, namely with Germany, or to a lesser degree, with Italy. Croatians served in all branches of the German Wehrmacht the Waffen SS and the SS Police. The following listings are of the units and formations known to have been made up of Croatian volunteers in the service of the German Armed Forces: (Many Croatians served within other units on an individual basis, but their numbers and exact stories are not known to history due to the nature of their individual service.)The 369th Reinforced Infantry Regiment, 369th “Devil’s” Division, 373rd”Tiger” Division, 392nd “Blue” Division, the Croatian Airforce Legion, The Croatian Naval Legion, the 13th Waffen SS Mountain Division “Handschar”, the 23rd Waffen SS Mountain Division “Kama”, “Croatia” Police Regiments 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5, Police Anti-Tank Company “Croatia”, and Gendarmerie Division “Croatia”. As well, the Light Transport Brigade and Croatian Legion both served under Italy during WWII.
The Croatian 369th Reinforced Regiment
On the day of the German invasion of the Soviet Union, June 22, 1941, the”Poglavnik” (Leader) of the Independent State of Croatia, Ante Pavelic, met with the military and civilian leadership of Croatia to decide how best to support their German ally. All present were strongly in favor of the German attack, seeing the invasion as a battle between the progressive forces of Europe against the Communist forces in the East. All present agreed that Croatia should participate in the invasion alongside Germany. To this end the representative of the German military in Croatia, Edmund Glaise von Horstenau was contacted.
Von Horstenau suggested that Pavelic prepare a letter to Adolf Hitler, offering the service of Croatian troops on the Eastern Front. Pavelic prepared this letter the following day, on June 23rd, 1941. In his letter, Pavelic explained to Hitler the wishes of the Croatian people to join the battle of “all freedom-loving nations against Communism”. Pavelic offered ground, sea, and air forces, to be committed “as soon as possible” to fight alongside Germany. Hitler responded to Pavelic’s letter on July 1st, 1941, accepting the Croatian offer and thanking them for their service. Hitler was of the opinion that ground forces could be sent quickly, while air and sea forces would need a longer time to be properly trained and equipped. On July 2nd, 1941, Pavelic ordered that volunteers be called for from all branches of the Armed Forces of Croatia to join the struggle in the East.
The ground contingent of the planned Croatian formations was the first to be formed. The Croatians hoped for a total of 3,900 volunteers in order to form a regimental-sized unit, but by the 15th of July 1941, 9,000 men had already stepped forward and volunteered for service! In light of such high numbers, the criteria for acceptance were raised considerably.
When finally organized on July 16th, 1941, the Regiment was given the title Verstarken Kroatischen Infanterie-Regiment 369, or 369th Reinforced Croatian Infantry Regiment. The Regiment had 3,895 officers, NCO’s and men. As part of the Wehrmacht, the men of the unit were to wear German uniforms and use German rank insignia. A Croatian arm shield consisting of 24 red and white checkers with the title Hrvatska (Croatia) above it was to be worn on the left arm and on the left side of the helmet.
The Regiment consisted of a regimental staff, 3 infantry battalions and an artillery staff company. Each infantry battalion had a battalion staff, 3 infantry companies, a machine-gun company, an anti-tank company, a supply company, and an artillery battery. The Regiment was termed “reinforced” because of the attached artillery which was not normally organic in a unit of regimental size. The commander of the Regiment was Colonel Ivan Markulj. A training battalion for the Regiment was also organized at this time. It was based in the town of Stokerau in Austria shortly after its formation. Its main function was to process replacements for the Regiment fighting on the front.
Once fully organized, the Regiment was transported to Dollersheim in Germany where it was equipped and the men gave their oath to the Fuhrer, the Poglavnik, and to Germany and Croatia. This was followed by three weeks of training after which the Regiment was sent by train through Hungary to Dongena in Bessarabia. From there the Regiment set off on a 750 km forced march through Ukraine to reach the front lines. The march lasted 35 days with only one day of rest. After the 35 day march, the destination of Budniskaja in Ukraine was reached and the Regiment received one week of respite. During the forced march, 187 members of the Regiment were sent back to Croatia for various health-related reasons and two soldiers were executed for leaving their sentry positions. In Budniskaja, a group of experienced German NCO’s joined the Regiment to assist in its final training and acclimatizing in the front lines.
On October 9th, 1941, the 369th Regiment was assigned to the 100.Jäger-Division.On the 13th of October, the Regiment participated in its first battle east of the Dnjeper River. From here on in battles were fought around the villages and towns of Petrusani, Kremencuga, Poltava, Saroki, Balti, Pervomajsk, Kirovgrad, Petropavlovsk, Taranovka, Grisin, Stalino, Vasiljevka, Aleksandrovka, Ivanovka, and Garbatovo. One particular aspect of the fighting during these battles that shocked the Croatians was the sheer numbers of surrendering Soviet troops. Literally, thousands surrendered to the Croatians. It actually came to the point where the Regiment was so swamped they considered releasing some of their PoWs! Many of the Soviet soldiers, and especially the Russians and Ukrainians, preferred to surrender to the Croatians feeling that they would get better treatment from fellow Slavs.
After nearly a year in existence, In July of 1942, the Regiment fought towards the northeast and then turned to the southeast along the Don River. Heavy losses were sustained by the Croats on the 25th, 26th, and 27th of July in battles around the Collective Farm(Kolhoz) known as “Proljet Kultura” near the town of Selivanova. 46 Croatian soldiers were killed and 176 wounded. Much of the fighting was fierce hand to hand combat. A Croatian military cemetery was built next to the Kolhoz and the soldiers killed in action were buried there. On August 26th 1942, the first reinforcements arrived from the training battalion in Stokerau and the Regiment was sent to Glasgow for rest and refitting.
Between the end of August and the end of September 1942, the Regiment took part in various training and refitting duties behind the lines. On September 22nd, 1942, Colonel Viktor Pavicic, until that time commander of the Croatian Military Academy, replaced Colonel Markulj as the CO of the Regiment. On September 24th, 1942, Ante Pavelic made a visit to the Regiment to bestow decorations upon various men of the unit and to lunch with General von Paulus of 6.Armee. Finally, on September 26th, 1942, the Regiment received orders to move out. A forced march to the south-east through Gomcar and Gumnik followed. After a 14 hour march, the Regiment arrived in the fateful suburbs of Stalingrad. At 11:30 pm on that same day, the 1st Battalion of the Regiment entered the front lines in Stalingrad itself. Early the next morning, the remaining portions of the Regiment also entered the front lines around Stalingrad. The 369th Regiment thus became the only unit of non-Germans to participate in the attack on Stalingrad. This was actually viewed as a great honor – a reward for its hard-fought battles and excellent successes to this point. Some talk was even heard about re-naming the 100.Jäger-Division as the 100th German-Croatian Jager Division! None of this was to come to fruition though, as the streets of Stalingrad were to be the final resting place for the Regiment.
The Regiment’s men participated in some of the hardest battles in the attempt to take Stalingrad. A typical day of fighting in Stalingrad for the men of the Regiment was described by the Commander of a platoon of the 3rd Company, Lt. Bucar:
“…When we entered Stalingrad, it was ruined and in flames. We took cover in trenches and bunkers, as the enemy was hitting us with artillery, Katusha rockets, and aircraft. I was lucky not to lose any men, but the Second Platoon lost one man dead and 5 wounded, and the Third Platoon 13 dead and wounded. Around 6:00 am, German Stuka aircraft bombed the area ahead of us, and an attack was ordered towards the northern part of the city. My platoon’s mission was to, in conjunction with a German unit, clear the Freight Station, and then the railroad dike, and reach the Volga River. Night fell under constant bombardment. I didn’t lose any men, but our transport unit was hit badly and lost 10 men, 40 horses, and an equipment truck with ammunition…”
The Commander of the 2nd Battalion, Captain Ivan Coric, described the fighting in Stalingrad as follows:
“…During the night of 26/27 September, Russian aircraft flew extremely low and bombed the area where my battalion was supposed to be encamped. However, expecting that this section might be hit, we had taken cover in ditches around the area. At 6:00 am on the 27th of September, receiving fire from only one part of the city, I re-deployed my men in various deep ditches, and in covered areas. We remained in reserve until 1:00 pm when the Regimental commander ordered that my battalion move out towards the German 227th Regiment’s positions. I requested that this move be postponed until dark as the Soviets were bombing the area with heavy artillery and Katusha rockets and I worried about the heavy casualties we would take moving in the open through this barrage. The Commander refused to consider my request, and at 2:00 pm, under the heaviest of bombardments, I moved out with my Battalion towards the 227th Regiment, about 10 km away. We moved in groups of 3-4 men, with myself and my Adjutant in the lead. After only a few hundred meters, we were hit by immense artillery fire, and my men began to die, one after another. Company Commander Tomas was wounded. About halfway to the 227th, we were ordered to stop and for myself and my Adjutant to report to the Commander of the 227th Regiment. I arranged my men in ditches and cover in the surrounding area. The Commander of the 227th Regiment, Lt.Colonel Mohr ordered my battalion to reinforce his weakened regiment, and for myself and my staff to remain in the vicinity of his HQ. Upon receiving these orders, and returning to my men, darkness had fallen. We moved out towards the positions of the 227th, crawling through ditches. Under a moonlight sky, Soviet airplanes easily noticed us and bombed us with Phosphorus bombs that burn upon explosion. Many of my men were inflames. It was a horrible sight. Healthy and wounded jumped in to try and save our burning comrades… My Battalion, now attached to the 227th Regiment, advanced with great difficulty, taking house by house. During the night of the 28th of September 1942, I was forced to leave my men due to a serious head wound I received from an airplane bomb. My Adjutant, Lt. Tomislav Jelic, was wounded in this explosion as well. I later heard that my men continued to fight heroically until the last man of the 2nd battalion had fallen.”
By the 13th of October, the 369th Regiment was down to one weak battalion and 2 weak independent companies consisting of only 983 men total out of the original Regiment, including all reinforcements arrived from Stokerau. Still, on this day, the Regiment managed to advance a further 800 meters into the northern sector of Stalingrad.
On the 16th of October 1942, Colonel-General Sanne decorated Croatian Sergeant Dragutin Podobnik with the Iron Cross 1st Class for extreme heroism during the taking of the Red October factory on the 30th of September. Colonel Pavicic is also decorated with this medal for his excellent leadership of the Regiment.
During the remaining days of October 1942, the Regiment fought hard and its losses accumulated. The Red October factory was continuously the center of fighting during this time. A Soviet counter-attack along the railway tracks near the Red October factory was just barely contained, and Russian civilians were even seen shooting Croatian and German soldiers, prompting an order to fire indiscriminately on all civilians found in the battle zone. October 31st, 1942 was spent defending Building number ten of the Red October factory.
On November 3rd, 1942, the 369th Regiment had the following troops still available: 1 infantry company with 98 men and 8 light machine-guns, a heavy machine-gun company with 73 men and one operational heavy machine-gun, and an anti-tank company with 20 men and 6 cannon – only enough men to serve two! The total remaining Croatian soldiers were 191. Of this, only 4 were officers. This number does not include the artillery battery, whose men and weapons were scattered throughout various German units. On the 4th of November, a battalion of replacements arrived from Stokerau, but even these much-needed men barely made the “reinforced regiment” a reinforced battalion!
On the 6th of November, the remains of the unit were attached to the German 212th Infantry Regiment. Fighting continued in and around the Red October factory. On November 21st, 1942, news of a Soviet attack on the flanks of the 6.Armee was heard. By November 25th, 1942, the lines being held by the Regiment were so thinly manned that Soviet scouts were able to pass through portions of the front into the German rear. Every available man, including the sick and lightly wounded, was therefore sent to hold the line.
There were 5 officers, 9 NCO’s and 110 soldiers left fighting at the end of November 1942. Food was carefully rationed and consists of 120 grams of horse meat per meal along with some bread. Of the 3 daily meals, only one was considered large, and this consisted of only 1/2 of the required amount to sustain troops from day-to-day.
As December arrived, the few remaining Croatian soldiers were frozen, hungry, and in the midst of a general lack of ammunition and weapons. The commanding officer, Colonel Pavicic, was by now living in his own world writing out irrelevant daily orders to troops and units that no longer existed. On the 17th of December, the Volga River froze over allowing the Soviets to open another front on that side of the city as well.
On Christmas Day, 1942, Lt. Korobk in wrote:
“…Today, December 25, 1942, around noon, the enemy attacked from Building number 4 into Building number 2 (Red October Factory), which is our left flank. The enemy fought his way into number 2. Our defenders are under constant fire from the ‘small white house’ across from Building number 2. A cannon shot by the enemy has destroyed our heavy machine-gun. At the same time as this attack on our left flank, the enemy attacked our right flank. Despite cross-fire and artillery support, this attack was thrown back. This success is mostly due to the heroism of Corporal Ivan Vadlje. In the evening we received a message from Lt.-Colonel Eichler, congratulating us for holding out. When night fell, we took advantage of the dark and counter-attacked on our left flank. Using hand grenades, we destroyed the enemy unit and re-took our previous positions. Lt-Colonel Eichler, upon hearing of this success, sent us a new message, in which he says that the Grenadiers of the 212th Regiment are proud to have warriors like us Croats in their midst. Sergeants Ante Martinovic and Franjo Filcic were killed in this counter-attack. 12 men are wounded.”
On January 10th, 1943, Colonel Pavicic, in his report to the 100.Jäger-Division, wrote:
“I must say that, in the period from September 27, 1942, when we arrived at Stalingrad, until today, my men have had only 4 days of rest. The last day of rest, on the 30th of December for 24 hours, was insufficient even for required sleep, as after 3 days and nights of constant battles in and around the Red October, they were so over-tired, that they slept like they were dead, and never even had time to wash, shave, or cut their hair. Immediately after this short rest, they were again thrown into the thick of battle, holding a small salient in our lines. They held this position until the 9th of January 1943, when they were pulled back into our current position. We are under attack here again today.”
On the 16th of January 1943, the Soviets launched an attack from three sides of the Croatian positions. They were pushed several streets back and a group led by Lt. Fiember was cut off. Under heavy attack, this group ran out of ammunition and was later over-run. Lt.Colonel Kuhlwein attempted to save young Fiember and his men by counter-attacking, but all of the men of this attack were killed, including Lt.-Colonel Kuhlwein. Lieutenants Zubcevski, Korobkin, and Vadlja, with a few surviving soldiers, continued to battle against this Soviet attack and soon all three were seriously wounded. The German command then ordered that the last surviving Croats be pulled from the battle lines and be employed in digging fortification lines around the former Soviet Airforce Academy, which would serve as the last defense point of the unit.
Shortly after, Colonel Pavicic requested from the 100.Jäger-Division that he be replaced. As he has no more men, just a few wounded, he felt he was useless. He suggested that Lt.-Colonel Mesic (Commander of the artillery battery) replace him and that he (Pavicic) be flown out of Stalingrad back to Stokerau where a German-Croatian Division was being formed to fight the partisans in the Balkans (This would be the 369th “Devil’s” Division, see below). On the 20th of January 1943, Colonel Pavicic attempted to fly out of Stalingrad. It is a complete mystery what happened to him. Two possibilities exist, one that his plane was shot down and the other that he had attempted to leave without the orders of the Divisional Command and was executed in those last mad days of the Stalingrad pocket. The former is more likely the truth, as there is a witness (Sergeant Ervin Juric) amongst the surviving Croatians that claims to have seen the orders arrive for Pavicic from General Sanne.
On the 23rd of January 1943, 18 wounded Croatians were flown out of Stalingrad. They were the last Croatians to leave Stalingrad alive. Amongst these lucky souls was Croatian Sergeant Juric, who wrote and carried with him to safety the Kriegstagbuch (unit war diary) of the 369th Reinforced Regiment, thereby saving for posterity the ultimate memorial to these brave men. The only entry in the diary after January 23rd, 1943 is “February 2, 1943, Stalingrad has fallen”.
Lt.-Colonel Mesic remained in Stalingrad after January 23rd, 1943 with the few surviving men of the Regiment. Most died in the desperate battles at the end. Mesic and a handful of soldiers survived and surrendered to the Soviets. They were forced to walk with no warm clothes and no food, all the way to Moscow. Here, they were thrown into a fenced field where they had to dig holes in the snow for protection from the elements. They were fed once a day and in 1945, Mesic was sent to Yugoslavia where the Communists government had him liquidated.
The remnants of the 369th that had been evacuated by air from Stalingrad due to wounds, sickness, etc, were sent to Stockerau where they alongside the replacement battalion of the former Regiment, formed the core of a new Croatian infantry unit, the 369th Vrazja Division, or Devil’s Division. There were approximately 1,000 of these former veterans of the original Croatian Regiment. They were all awarded a special honor badge called the”Croatian Legion Badge – 1941″ shaped as a Linden leaf with the Croat checkerboard and the words “Hrvatska Legija – 1941” on it.
The 369th (Croat) Infantry Division
In mid-1941, seeing the success of the Croatian soldiers on the Eastern Front, and beginning to need as many men as possible for the ongoing war, the German Army decided to raise a Croatian Legion Division. The plan was to send this division to fight in Russia as well.
The Division began formation on August 21st, 1942 in Stokerau, Austria. Training Battalion personnel and recovered wounded of the Croatian 369th Regiment was the nucleus of the Division. By December of 1942, about 1,000 veterans of the 369th Regiment were in this new unit. Added to these men were a group of fresh volunteers from Croatia. The Commander of the Division became German Lt.-General Fritz Neidholt, and a sprinkling of German officers and NCOs served to bolster the Division’s ranks.
The men were organized into two Infanterie-Grenadier Regiments, the 369th, and the 370th Croatian Regiments. Each consisted of three infantry battalions and a mortar company. An artillery regiment, the 369th Croatian Artillery Regiment, itself of two light battalions of three batteries and one heavy battalion of 2 batteries each, was also formed alongside various support units such an engineer battalion, a signals battalion, a supply troop, a maintenance company, three administration companies, a medical company, a veterinary company, and a military police detachment. The division received the title”369th (Croat) Infantry Division”, but was referred to by its members as the”Vrazja” (“Devil’s”) Division. The “Vrazja” name dates back to a Croatian division (the 42nd) of the Austro-Hungarian Army in WWI. The Germans, on the other hand, preferred to call the division the “Schachbrett” or “Chessboard” Division, due to the distinctive arm shield of the Croatians. The Division wore German uniform and rank insignia, and only the Croat arm shield to identify it as a unit of Croatian volunteers. Unlike the former 369th Regiment, the new 369th Division wore its arm shield on the right sleeve. Note that, with the original 369th Regiment destroyed at Stalingrad, the new division titled one of its regiments “369” to honor their fallen comrades on the Eastern Front.
In January 1943 it was decided that the situation in Croatia was becoming critical due to the Communist Partisan uprisings in the region and the Division was instead sent to the Balkans rather than the Eastern Front. Upon arrival in Croatia, the Division had approximately 14,000 men in its ranks.
The first operation it participated in was titled “Weiss” (White), in northern Bosnia. This battle is sometimes referred to as the Battle of the Neretva. Beginning on January 20th, 1943, and lasting until the end of March 1943, the operation turned out to be a tactical victory for the Axis but failed to destroy the Partisans. The Division fought well from the area of Sisak-Kostajnica south to Prijedor towards Bosanski Petrovac, where it hooked up with the SS “Prinz Eugen” Division. Unfortunately, the Partisans escaped the planned trap at the Neretva River by fighting their way through Italian areas of operation and destroying a Serbian Cetnik blocking force.
After this first battle, the 369th Division was assigned an area of operation that ran roughly from the city of Karlovac in the west to the Croatia-Serbia border on the Drina River in the east, and from the Croatian Adriatic coast in the south, to the Sava River in the north. Most operations, however, were in the Sarajevo-Mostar regions within this area.
The next major operation the 369th Division participated in was “Schwarz”(Black), in May of 1943. The operation is also referred to as the “Battle of the Sutjeska”. Large Partisan forces, numbering 4 divisions and 2 brigades, were surrounded in the Montenegro-Bosnian border area. The Partisans made several breakout attempts and managed to break through the surrounding forces at Foca on the Sutjeska River. Escaping in a northwesterly direction,3 divisions of Partisans ran into a blocking force of the 369th Division near the town of Balinovac. A heavy battle ensued, with the Communist guerrillas managing to tear several gaps in the Division’s lines and escape. Losses were heavy on both sides.
After resting and rebuilding, the 369th next fought the Partisans in December of 1943 in the area of Travnik (central Bosnia). Operations”Kugelblitz” (around the town of Visoko, central Bosnia), “Schneesturm”(eastern Bosnia), and “Waldrausch” (also eastern Bosnia) were then participated in. Ending in late January 1944, these operations netted over 11,000 Partisan dead but failed to destroy the guerrilla movement. Smaller-scale operations continued throughout 1944.
By November the military situation in Croatia had become critical for the Axis. The 369th Division was in the Mostar region trying to defend a large area with only a few fortress battalions added as reinforcements. In late January of 1945 a large Partisan offensive on Mostar threatened to overwhelm the outnumbered 369th, and February 15th, 1945, Mostar was abandoned. The 369th was forced to retreat westwards, leaving much of its heavy equipment behind. The slow, terrible fighting withdrawal of the Axis forces from Croatia into Austria continued, and the 369th Division was a part of this movement. Heavy losses were incurred by the division and by late April of 1945 it had only about 500 men per regiment remaining!
On May 11th, 1945 the 369th Division surrendered to British armored forces near Bleiburg, Austria. Most of the Croatian soldiers were promptly sent by the British into Partisan hands where they were for the most part executed.
The 373rd (Croat) Infantry Division
On January 6th, 1943, the German Army formed a second German-Croatian Division at Dollersheim (Germany), for service in Croatia on anti-Partisan duties. Titled 373.Infanterie-Division (Kroat.) or 373rd Infantry Division(Croat), the Division was nicknamed “Tigar” (Tiger) by its men. The Commander was German Lt.-General Emil Zellner. Most of the officer cadre was German, as were a large number of NCO’s. Uniforms and rank insignia were German, with the Croatian arm shield on the right sleeve.
The Division was organized into 2 Infantry-Grenadier Regiments – the 383rd and the 384th Croatian Regiments (of 3 Infantry Battalions and a Mortar Company each), an Artillery Regiment – the 373rd Croatian Artillery Regiment(2 Light Battalions of 3 Batteries and 1 heavy Battalion of 2 Batteries), and support units (Pioneer Battalion, Signals Battalion, Supply Troop, Maintenance Company, 3 Administration Companies, Medical Company, Veterinary Company and a Military Police Detachment). The Supply Company was horse-drawn.
The 373rd Division was assigned an Area of Operation, reaching from Karlovac in the east, to Sarajevo in the west, and from the Adriatic coast of Croatia in the south to the Sava River in the north. Most of the anti-Partisan drives were in the Banja Luka – Bihac areas.
In May of 1944, the 373rd participated in Operation “Rosselsprung” (Knight’s Move), the attempt to capture the Communist Partisan leader Tito. In the Fall of 1944, the Division absorbed the 2nd Jager Brigade of the Croatian Army as its 3rd Regiment (385th Croatian Infantry Regiment).On December 6th, 1944, the 373rd participated in the defense of Knin, where it was heavily mauled. Survivors retreated to the northwest towards Bihac. By January 1945, the Division’s remnants were fighting in the Bihac area as part of the German XVth Mountain Corps. Battles continued with the Division moving to the Kostajnica region in late April of 1945. Survivors surrendered to the Partisans west of Sisak in May of 1945.
The 392nd (Croat) Infantry Division
On August 17th, 1943, the German Army formed the last of the German-Croatian Divisions. Like the 373rd before it, the 392nd was founded at Dollersheim (Germany) for service in Croatia on anti-Partisan duties. Titled 392 Infanterie-Division (Kroat.) or 392nd Infantry Division(Croat), the Division was nicknamed “Plava” (Blue) by its men. The Commander was German Lt.-General Hans Mickl. Most of the officer cadre was German, as were a large number of NCO’s.
Uniforms and rank insignia were German, with the Croatian arm shield on the right sleeve. The Division was organized into 2 Infantry-Grenadier Regiments – the 364th and the 365th Croatian Regiments (of 3 Infantry Battalions and a Mortar Company each), an Artillery Regiment – the 392nd Croatian Artillery Regiment (2 Battalions with 3 Light Batteries each), and support units (Pioneer Battalion, Signals Battalion, Supply Troop, Maintenance Company, 3 Administration Companies, Medical Company, Veterinary Company and a Military Police Detachment). The Supply Company was horse-drawn.
The 392nd Division was assigned an Area of Operation, reaching from southern Slovenia, along the Croatian Adriatic coast, to the city of Knin. The Division fought mostly in the northern coastal area of Croatia, with its islands. It also took part in the German attempt to construct a security line around the Otocac – Bihac area, in January 1945, after the fall of Knin.
Under severe Partisan attack, the 392nd made a fighting withdrawal westward until April 24th, 1945 when north of Rijeka (Fiume) the German cadre released the Croatian soldiers from further service and surrendered to the Partisans.
The Croatian Airforce Legion
When Ante Pavelic’s call on Croatian volunteers for the Eastern Front went out (July 2nd, 1941), an air force unit was quickly organized. A large number of volunteers had come forward, mostly from the already existing Croatian Airforce and many had to be turned away.
Colonel Ivan Mrak was selected as the Commander of the Legion. The Legion itself was organized into a Fighter Squadron (commanded by Lt.Colonel Franjo Dzal) and a Bomber Squadron (commanded by Lt.Colonel Vjekoslav Vicevic). The Fighter Squadron was itself further divided into 2 Wings, as was the Bomber Squadron. The Air Legion departed from Croatia for training in Germany on July 15th, 1941.
The Fighter Squadron:
One Wing of the Fighter Squadron was sent to the area of Furth, Germany, for training, the other to Herzogen Aurah Airfield, nearby. Training commenced on July 19th, 1941, on Arado 96 and Me D aircraft, and lasted until the end of September 1941 at which time the Legionnaires were deemed ready for the Eastern Front and received Messerschmitt Bf109 fighter planes. During the course of their training, the men had been issued Luftwaffe uniforms adorned with the Croatian arm shield and the Croatian Airforce Legion badge on the right breast pocket.
The Squadron received the official designation ’15.(Kroatische)/JG 52′, and arrived at its first Eastern Front airfield on October 6th, 1941, near Poltava. On October 9th, 1941, the Squadron has its first taste of action,when, in the Ahtijevka-Krasnograd area, a Soviet R10 was shot down. The kill was given to the German liaison pilot to the Squadron, Lt. Baumgarten. The Squadron was transferred at the end of October 1941 to Taganrog and stayed in this area until December 1st, 1941. The first kill by a Croatian pilot occurred in this time period by Captain Ferencina, and the second by Lt.Colonel Dzal.
On December 1st, 1941, the Squadron transferred to Marinpol. Attacks were made on Soviet armored columns around Pokorovskoje, Matvejeva, Kurgan, Jeiska and Uspenskoje, and on the railway line Marinpol-Stalino. As well, the Squadron escorted German bombers on their missions. By the end of January 1942, the Squadron had shot down 23 Soviet airplanes (of this, 4 were MIG-6 fighters). At the end of March 1942, the Squadron received a telegram from the Commander of 4.Fliegerkorp, General Flugbeil, and the Commander of 4.Luftflotte, Colonel-General Lohr, congratulating them on their successes. In April 1942, the Squadron flew escort missions for Stuka bombers guarded the Marinpol airfield, and strafes Soviet troops in the Azov Sea area. Nine more Soviet airplanes were shot down in this period.
In May, the Squadron was transferred first to the Krimea, and shortly thereafter, to the Artemovka-Konstantinovka region. From this base of operation, the Squadron flew escort missions for bombers attacking Sevastopol and patrolled the Azov Sea area. Four more Soviet planes were downed, and a Soviet patrol boat was also sunk. From the end of May, till June 21st, 1942 (the date of the Squadron’s 1000 flight), 21 more Soviet planes were shot down. From this date until the end of July 1942, 69 more planes are shot down.
The Squadron continued with its fine performances until July 1944 when it was returned to Croatia to combat the increasing Partisan menace. By this time, the Squadron had tallied 283 kills, had 14 pilots with Acestatus, and 4 pilots (Culinovic, Galic, Milkovic, and Kauzlaric) that had been decorated with the Iron Cross, First Class (EKI) and Iron Cross, 2nd Class (EKII).
The Fighter Squadron’s losses during their service on the Eastern Front totaled an incredibly low 2 planes and 5 pilots!
The Bomber Squadron:
Officially designated ’15.(Kroatische)/KG 53′., the bomber squadron was equipped with Dornier Do17 aircraft. It arrived on the Eastern Front on October 25th, 1941, after training at the Grosse Kampfflieger Schule 3, in Greifswald, Germany. Their first area of operations was near Vitebsk. The rest of the Bomber Squadron’s assignments were in the Northern Sector of the Eastern Front, including the bombing of Leningrad and Moscow. On November 9th, 1941, the Squadron was congratulated by Fieldmarshall Kesselring for its actions thus far. After flying 1247 sorties on the Eastern Front, the Squadron was dissolved in December of 1942, and integrated into the Croatian Airforce for battle against the Partisans. During the time it was active, 5 aircraft and 20 men were lost by the Squadron.
The Croatian Naval Legion
Soon after Pavelic’s call for Croatian volunteers to fight on the Eastern Front went out on July 2nd, 1941, enough naval officers and men came forward to form the Croatian Naval Brigade. This Brigade had altogether 343 members, of which 23 were officers, 220 NCO’s and 100 sailors.
It is interesting to note that Italy had vetoed the forming of a Croatian national Navy that would serve in the Adriatic Sea, so all of the best naval personnel in Croatia stepped forward into German service. (The Italians had no problems with the formation of a Croatian Legion unit that would serve on the Eastern Front).
Shortly after formation, the Brigade received the title “Croatian Naval Legion” (Hrvatska Pomorska Legija) and became a part of the German Navy(Kriegsmarine). The first commander was Frigate Captain Andro Vrkljan. He was later replaced by Battleship Captain Stjepan Rumenovic.
The Naval Legion was sent for training to Varna, Bulgaria, on the Black Sea. Upon arrival in Varna on July 17th, 1941, the Croatian Legionnaires received their uniforms and started with training on German minesweepers and submarines, as they were to be the future crews of these ships in the Black Sea. The training during this period, over and above the required naval training on the boats, consisted of infantry training, signals training, rowing, and German language instruction. German Admiral Schuster was one of the dignitaries that paid a visit to the Croatian Legionnaires during their training in Bulgaria.
The training was completed on September 22nd, 1941, and on the same day the Legion set off for the Soviet Union, where they arrived on the 30th of September 1941. The official military designation for the Legion was 23.Minesuch-Flotilla, or 23rd Minesweeping Flotilla.
At the end of September 1941, the Legion was stationed in Geniscek. The town was fortified shortly after the unit arrived and patrolling commenced – both shore patrols and patrols along the coastline. A report from this period indicated that the Croatian sailors were “eager to do battle”.
An attack on Geniscek in late 1941 by the Soviets was destroyed thanks to Luftwaffe’s intervention. At the time only the Croatian Legion, a squad of Romanian cavalry, and a small German garrison were present to defend the town. The Winter was passed in digging bunkers and keeping warm. During this period Captain Vrkljan of the Legion was traveling with a German inspection team throughout the region. Amongst other adventures, the Inspection team fought as infantry in the town of Teodozija during a Soviet attack. During these long, cold, boring winter months, the Soviets attempted to destroy the troop morale by continuously dropping propaganda leaflets, which, among other things, poked fun at the Germans for having a bad Christmas and trying to convince them that only surrender will bring about the possibility of ever having another good one. All leaflets ended with “Long live Moscow! Down with Hitler”. The Croatian Legionnaires used the leaflets in their stoves.
At the beginning of April 1942, the ice in the Geniscek Harbor finally began to loosen, and the Croatians prepared to depart from Geniscek. Being well-liked by the locals, the Town Council of Geniscek named a street”Hrvatska” (Croatia) in their honor.
By mid-April, the ice was almost gone, and the Croatian ships could once again set sail. Mines were ordered placed around the harbor entrance as a defense against possible Soviet attack, however, in a catastrophic accident during the laying of the mines, 25 Croatians were killed and 2 boats destroyed. On May 25th, 1942, the Croatian naval flotilla sailed out of Geniscek. They had manned their positions in this small town for 8 months, and had defended it from all attacks with poise and courage, and had sustained minimal losses.
In August of 1942, the Legion was at Marinpol. The Legion at this time had 31 MFK’s (Motorfischkuter), and 35 other motorboats under their command. Including the command ship “Tovaris” (captured from the Soviet navy) and other smaller boats, the Legion was 130 boats strong. The Legion’s commander, besides his Croatian crews, also commanded 200 German sailors that had been assigned to the Legion. The German contingent was commanded by Ensign Plautz.
Just prior to New Year’s Eve, 1942, the Legion transferred their ships to new crews and were sent to Croatia for rest. After this, they were sent to Germany for further training, and after this back to Varna. In October of 1943, the Legion was transferred to Trieste, where men of the Legion were assigned to various Kriegsmarine ships, thereby officially ending the Croatian’s service as a single unit of the German Navy.
It is interesting to note that, during their tour of duty in the Crimea, Sea of Azov and the Black Sea, the Croatians managed to recruit into their ranks several former Red Army sailors of Ukrainian nationality. Some of these Ukrainians brought their ships with them to the Croatians!
A Croatian Coastal Artillery Battery was also attached to the Legion in the summer of 1943.
The Croatian Legionnaires wore regular Kriegsmarine uniforms with only the red-white checkerboard shield of Croatia on their left arm to distinguish them. The coastal artillery wore German field gray, with the arm-shield.
The 13th Waffen SS Mountain Division “Handschar” (Croatian Nr.1)
When the Independent State of Croatia proclaimed its independence on April 10th, 1941, during the German invasion of Yugoslavia, part of the land it claimed was the former Austro-Hungarian province of Bosnia-Herzegovina(Bosnia Hercegovina). The province was an ethnic and religious mix, with a portion of the population being Catholic Croatian, a portion being Orthodox Serbian and a portion being Croatians of the Muslim faith. It was these Muslim inhabitants of Bosnia that Himmler and the SS would target in their recruitment of a Croatian SS Division (although a portion of the future division’s men would be Catholic Croatian as well).
The reasons for the recruitment in particular of Croatian Muslims by the SS were many-fold. For one, Himmler was fascinated by the Islamic faith and thought Muslims to be fearless soldiers. Himmler also subscribed to the propaganda theory that Croatians (and therefore the Croatian Muslims) were not, in fact, Slavic people, but actually of Aryan (Gothic) descent, and thereby acceptable to the racially “pure” SS. The fact that this ludicrous theory would not hold up to any kind of serious scrutiny was conveniently ignored. Finally, the Germans were hoping to rally the World’s 350 million Muslims to their side, in a struggle against the British Empire. The creation of a Muslim, albeit European Muslim Division, was considered a stepping stone to this greater end.
Adolf Hitler approved of Himmler’s idea on February 13th, 1943. Prior to the formation of the division, however, approval also had to be granted by the Croatian government, as their citizens were to be recruited, and on Croatian territory. The Croatian Poglavnik, Ante Pavelic, and his ministers had many problems with the idea but eventually agreed to the division’s creation on March 5th, 1943. The divisional strength reached the required 26,000 men by mid-1943, though not all men were volunteers (some being begged, bribed, and outright kidnapped into service). Also, 2,800 of the men were Catholic Croatians and not Muslim.
The new division was assigned the number “13”, and originally named the “13SS Frei.Gebirgs Division (Kroatien). The full name “13Waffen-Gebirgs-Division der SS ‘Handschar’ (kroatische Nr. 1)” was not given until May 1944. A “Handschar” (or Handzar in Croatian) is a curved Turkish sword – the Scimitar. This sword has historically been the symbol of Bosnia. The Division was to have 2 Infantry Regiments (Waffen-Gebirgs-JagerRegiments der SS 27 & 28 – kroatisches Nrs. 1 & 2), an Artillery Regiment(SS-Gebirgs-Artillerie Regiment 13), a Reconnaissance Company, a Panzerjager Company, a Flak Company, a Pioneer Battalion, and other support units; and was designated an SS “mountain” division. The first commander (from March 9, 1943, till August 1, 1943) was SS Standartenfuhrer Herbert von Obwurzer. Oberfuhrer (later Brigadefuhrer) Karl-Gustav Sauberzweig took over until June 1st, 1944 when Desiderius Hampel (Oberfuhrer, later Brigadefuhrer)replaced him. Hampel commanded the remnants of the division until its surrender on May 8th, 1945.
The uniform worn by the division was regular SS issue, with a divisional collar patch showing an arm, holding a Scimitar, over a Swastika. On the left arm was a Croatian arm shield (red-white chessboard). Headgear was the Muslim Fez, in field gray (normal service) or red (“walking out”), with the SS Eagle and death’s head emblazoned. Non-Muslim members could opt to wear the normal SS mountain cap. The oval mountain troop Edelweiss patch was worn on the right arm.
The division departed for training in occupied France, where the full complement arrived by September 1943. It was at Villefranche, during this period of training, that the division became the only SS Division to mutiny. Much has been made of this, however, while it is true that some German officers were killed during the mutiny, the fact is that only very few soldiers participated in the uprising. Fault can be squarely placed on 3 Communists, infiltrated into the ranks of the division, and a handful of malcontents. Not only did a great majority of the troops not participate in the rebellion, but most either had no idea it was happening or actively helped to quash it. 14 soldiers were executed as mutineers.
By mid-February 1944, the division finished its training (some time was spent at Neuhammer, Germany for training), and was sent back to Bosnia for active service (against Communist Partisans). Its area of operation was northeastern Bosnia, western Serbia, and southern Sirmium. The division participated in several anti-Partisan operations (such as “Wegweiser”,”Save”, “Osterei”, “Maibaum”, “Maiglockchen” etc.). Some successes were achieved, and overall the “Handschar” showed itself as a competent anti-guerrilla unit.
With the penetration of the Red Army up to the Croatian borders in late 1944, the Division was transferred to southern Hungary and became involved in front-line fighting. Desertions plagued the Division from this point on, as many of the Muslims decided to return to Bosnia to protect their homes and families. The men who remained continued to fight valiantly against overwhelming odds and were slowly pushed westward out of Hungary into Austria. The remnants of the division surrendered to British troops on May 8th, 1945.
In conclusion, one must say that the “Handschar” Division was certainly not a top-of-the-line, elite SS unit. However, when engaged in the areas and battles its men were promised to fight in (that is, in Bosnia, against Communist forces) the division fought well. Certainly, the majority of claims in much of the WW2 literature that the “Handschar” was “bad, prone to atrocities” etc, as claims by authors who have not studied the subject fully, but rather parrot one another without proper research. Men of the “Handschar” won 5 Knight’s Crosses, 5 Crosses in Gold, and 1 Cross in Silver.
The 23rd Waffen SS Mountain Division “Kama”
Adolf Hitler gave approval for the raising of a 2nd Croatian Waffen SS division on June 17, 1944, giving this fledgling division the honorary title”Kama” (a short Turkish sword), and assigning the divisional number 23. The full title of the division was, therefore: 23.Waffen-Geb.Div. der SS “Kama”(kroatische Nr. 2). The decision was also made to raise a Corps command that would eventually lead the 13th SS Division (“Handzar”) and the 23rd SS Division (“Kama”). Actual recruitment for the “Kama” Division had started on June 10th, 1944. A sizeable number of German officers and NCO’s were made available to the division. Croatian officers and men from the”Handzar” Division were also transferred to “Kama”, including the entire Reconnaissance Battalion. To this core of troops was added a new batch of Croatian/Croatian-Muslim recruits.
At its peak strength in September 1944, “Kama” had 3,793 men. Fearing Partisan disruption of the new division in training, the assembly site was chosen for the division was the Backa Region. Backa had been annexed by Hungary following the invasion of Yugoslavia in 1941 and was far enough from negative outside influences on the troops.
The division began to take shape in July and August of 1944. During the month of September 1944, the Red Army made dangerous advances into the Balkans and Hungary. The training bases for the “Kama” Division were suddenly precariously close to the front lines. The SS-FHA attempted to get the division ready for combat, citing the unrealistic date of September 24 as when the unit would be ready for front line service. The training state of the recruits was still in the basic stage, however. It would be sheer suicide to commit the division to front-line service!
The unrealistic date of commitment passed. The SS-FHA soon realized that no time was left for the “Kama” Division to form. As the Red Army moved into Hungary, German military leaders decided to disband the unit and make as much use of the personnel as possible by transferring them as replacements to other divisions. The decision was made in October 1944, and most of the divisional elements went to the 31st SS Division.
The Muslims of “Kama” were ordered to report to the “Handzar” Division. Some of them deserted on the way to “Handzar” headquarters, most reported for duty. Divisional number “23” was then given to the Dutch Panzer-Grenadier Division just being formed.
During its short, 5 month existence, “Kama” commander was SS-Stardartenfuhrer Helmut Raithel. A collar patch depicting a sun was designed for the division, but few were actually produced.
The “Kama” Division was envisioned as an anti-Partisan unit, but the worsening German military situation required that the division’s organization be aborted.
Croatia Police Regiments 1-5, Police Anti-Tank Company”Croatia”, and Gendarmerie Division “Croatia”
On July 15th, 1943, an agreement was signed between the Independent State of Croatia and Germany, by which a German-Croatian Police Force(Deutsch-Kroatische Polizei), under German Police & SS command, was to be raised and organized. The Commander of this new force was SS Major-General Konstantine Kammerhofer, and was intended for “internal security duties”.Initially, one regiment, consisting of 2 battalions, was formed, but the strength of this force continually grew. By the Spring of 1944, 15 Battalions had been formed, organized into 5 regiments. These regiments were named “Polizei Freiwilligen-Regiment” and numbered 1-5. As well, 15 Independent Police Battalions were raised, titled Polizei-Freiwilligen-Bataillon ‘Kroatien’, and numbered 1-15. In early 1945,12 of these battalions were joined into a “Gendarmerie Division Croatia”, but by all accounts, this was a “paper division”, as the battalions were scattered all over Croatian territory, and the new headquarters couldn’t possibly gather them together under the logistical and strategic circumstances of the time.
The BdO (Befelshaber der Ordnungspolizei) in Zagreb, in December of 1944,raised a “Polizei Panzer-Jaeger Kompanie Kroatien”, that was independent of the above regiments and division.
Altogether, 32,000 Croatians served in these German police units, and, while not front line troops helped keep order and defend strategic positions throughout the Independent State of Croatia.
The Light Transport Brigade (Italian-Croatian)
In July 1941, Italian General Antonio Oxilio requested an audience with Croatian Poglavnik Ante Pavelic. During their meeting, General Oxilio presented Pavelic with a letter from the Italian High Command, asking that a Legion, even a symbolic one, be formed by Croatia for service in the Italian Army, on the Eastern Front. The fact was that the Italians felt hurt. The Croatians were serving with Germany in the Soviet Union, and yet, no one had advised the Italians of this, let alone asked for their permission. The Croatians, although not pleased with this request, decided not to in sultan ally, even a dubious one. Therefore, on July 26th, 1941, the Croatian Army Command issued the appropriate orders and the “Light TransportBrigade” (Laki Prijevozni Zdrug) came into being. The majority of the troops for the unit came from a battalion of volunteers that were intended as reinforcements for the 369th Regiment in Russia.
The Brigade was formed with 1100 soldiers, 70 NCO’s and 45 Officers (1215 total), divided into 3 Infantry Companies, 1 Machine-Gun Company, 1 (81 mm)Mortar Company, and 1 (65 mm) Artillery Battery. The Commanding Officer was Lt.-Colonel Egon Zitnik (a Croat).
The Brigade’s first posting was in the city of Varazdin, in Croatia, where they trained, and awaited the Italians to organize their expeditionary force. The wait stretched on, as the Italians had many organizing problems. In the meantime, the Brigade performed sweeps in the Kordun, Banija, and Bosanska Krajina regions of Croatia, searching for small groups of Yugoslav soldiers and bands of outlaws that were hiding in the forests and fighting against the new Croatian state.
On December 17th, 1941, the Italians finally ordered the Brigade to travel to Italy where they received their full complement of weapons and transports. 3 Months of intense training exercises followed. At the end of the training schedule, the Legionnaires were visited by General Ugo Cavallerio of the Italian Headquarters Staff, and the Minister of Defense of Croatia, Slavko Kvaternik. The Brigades battle flag was presented at this ceremony, and the men took their oath to Italy, Croatia, the Duce, the Italian King, and the Poglavnik.
The Brigade arrived at the Eastern Front on April 16th, 1942, near the town of Harcjusk. Here they were attached to the Italian 3rd Rapid Division”Principe Amadeo Duca D’Aosta”, and received the remainder of their equipment and transports (44 trucks, 3 automobiles, and 6 motorcycles).On the 11th of May, near the town of Pervomajska, the Brigade fought its first battle, alongside the 63rd Blackshirt “Tagliamento” unit. 5 men were lost in this minor engagement.
The Brigade, during the next 10 months, fought around the towns of Stokovo, Greko-Timofejevka, and Veseli-Nikitovo. On July 11th, 1942, the Brigade was transferred to the Italian XXXVth Corps. The very next day, with a battle-group of Blackshirts, the Brigade fought its way 30 km deep into Soviet lines. Battles follow around Vladimirovka, Krasna Poljana, and Fjodorovka. On July 28th, 1942 the Brigade crossed the Donjec River at Lubanskoje. On August 25th, 1942, the Soviets counter-attacked and the Brigade was involved in heavy fighting. The Croatians managed to hold their lines, inflicting 20 casualties and capturing 101 Russian soldiers. The Croatians lost 8 dead and 12 wounded. For this battle, the Brigade was awarded the “Sul Campo” decoration by the commander of the XXXVth Corps.
On December 19th, 1942, the Brigade was holding Hills 210 and 168 near Hracin. Here they were surrounded by a massive Soviet attack but continued fighting until December 21st, 1942 when they ran out of ammunition and were over-run. There were no survivors and the unit was totally destroyed.
The Italian Croatian Legion
After the destruction of the “Light Transport Brigade”, the Italians sponsored the creation of a new “Legion” unit. It came into existence in May of 1943, only 4 months before the Italian collapse, as a 1,800 man strong Infantry Regiment, reinforced with its own Replacement Battalion and an Artillery Battalion of 2 Batteries. This “Legion” was sent to northern Italy, to the Lake Garda area, and then the Italo-Slovene border area. After the Italian surrender, the men of the Legion were used to reinforce the existing German-Croatian Divisions, especially the 373rd “Tiger” Division.